Nathaniel lounged on the bench where Elissa usually sat. A wave of irritation flared within her at finding him in the spot she came to feel as hers. It receded just as quickly. Vigil's Keep was his home, after all, and had been long before King Alistair gifted it to the Grey Wardens. The Vigil, and all of the Arling, had been belonged to the the Howe family for generations.
She decided to retreat to the main hall. Despite his numerous apologies, his angry words, when she found him in a cell, cut like a knife against a half-healed wound. The hatred in his expression matched Alistair's when she spared Loghain. She'd thought Vigil's Keep would be a haven, an escape from the cold disdain she now received from the king. Instead, she lived with her biggest regret.
A pang of regret clutched at her chest. She had betrayed their past friendship by forcing him to become a Warden. She was bound by honor and vengeance, and now he was too. She regretted her hasty decision. She wished to take it back, free him from the Joining which tied him forever to the Wardens. She wanted to return his home to him, but she could no sooner do either of those things than he could return her family to her.
She'd thought of sending him to Weisshaupt, but she wasn't so selfish as to deny him his home for as long as it was available to him. She sent her own request for a transfer to Weisshaupt weeks ago, but knew if they approved her transfer, it would be after the current Darkspawn threat was dealt with. She'd recommended Nathaniel be her replacement. King Alistair hadn't responded to her letter. It troubled her, as she thought he might find it important that Rendon Howe's oldest son was now a Grey Warden residing at the Vigil. She wondered if he read any of her reports regarding the political issues she faced in Amaranthine. The lack of correspondence from the king was a stark reminder that Denerim was no longer an option for her.
She hated the thought of leaving Ferelden; despite all that had happened, it was home. Alistair had jumped at the chance to send her away. He could no longer stand the sight of her; her very face was a reminder of what she had done. Surely Nathaniel still hated her as much as the king did. How could he not? Her crime against him was no less grievous.
Hoping that he hadn't sensed her approach, she took a few hasty steps backward. She cringed at the resounding snap of the dry twig echoing against the stone walls.
Nathaniel shook his head slightly as he looked up, a slight smile curved his full mouth. "Good evening, Warden-Commander."
Elissa stood straighter. "I didn't mean to interrupt, Warden Howe."
"Are you certain you don't require my... services?" His voice dipped lower than usual, and sent her heart pounding. He stood slowly, his moves were smooth, calculated, nearly sensual, as he stalked toward her.
Despite the cool night air, his shirt was untied. A deep V exposed his chest, where a thatch of dark curls matched the locks now grown past his shoulders. His sleeves were rolled to the elbow, and in long, strong fingers he held a bundle of papers. Elissa drank in the sight of him. The smirk on his face was clearly illuminated in the lantern light. Her face warmed, and her heart skipped another beat at what she imagined he thought she was thinking.
“No,” she managed, annoyed by her voice’s squeaky quality. She pinched her lips shut and shook her head. Thumbing behind her. “I was looking for the Senechal, Keep matters.” She turned on her heel, and willed her weak knees to take her from the dangerous cat, lest he pounce on the ill-prepared mouse.
Warm, firm fingers curled around her elbow, bringing her to a halt.
“Why are you avoiding me?”
“I’m not.” She rolled her shoulder, pulling free of his grip.
Nathaniel dropped his hand without hesitation, his brow furrowed, lips pinched. The panic she felt at his touch subsided, replaced by a longing to smooth the frustration from his face. “Liar. I felt you draw near. I know when you hesitated, and when you chose to retreat.”
Her eyes snapped to his. “Neither of us wishes for the company of the other. So if you will excuse me, I’ll bid you goodnight, Warden.
“I didn’t realize mind reading was a skill gained by becoming a Grey Warden?”
Elissa let out a snort. ”As if I need to read your mind. You’ve made you opinion of the Wardens, and myself, quite clear.”
“How many times must I apologize? I am not my father. I can admit when I’ve made a grievous error of judgement.” He shook his head, a sorrowful expression etched his brow. “We were friends once.”
“We haven’t tried to kill each other since you became a Warden, I think that counts as friends.”
A grimace crossed his face. “Is that it, then? Does one man’s madness destroy everything?”
“Hasn’t it? Do you think I wanted any of this.” She swept a hand around her. “Did you want this? The past is the past. If I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s that sentiment is for fools. Confessions of love are just empty words.” She bit her lower lip. She’d said more than she intended. She took a step back, but the wall of the garden stopped her retreat. He moved closer, blocking her from stepping forward. She glanced to the side and relaxed, seeing enough space to maneuver around him.
Slowly, Elissa tilted her gaze up to meet Nathaniel’s, and her breath caught in her throat. Once, long ago, he had maneuvered her against a wall very much like this. Times were simpler, back then, and she foolishly believed she knew everything. Her life, though boring at times, made sense. Now, nothing did. She could hear blood pulsing in her ears; she hoped he didn’t notice. The same flutter of wings broke free in her stomach as they had so many years ago.
Nathaniel’s expression fell. “You refused me, if I recall.”
Elissa let out a gasp. “I was barely 18! You were leaving for the Free Marches.” Why did she need to remind him of how heavy-handed his father was? He left for the Free Marches in an indignant rage. Angry with his parents for denying him, angry with her for not running away with him. “It’s too late now.”
His eyes widened slightly. “There is someone else, then?” He nodded. “I shouldn’t be surprised.”
She gave an angry shake of her head and scowled. “There is no one, not anymore. Love is just a pretty word bandied about. A meaningless promise, nothing more.”
Nathaniel’s expression grew dark. “What I said then still holds true. I knew you weren’t ready for marriage, I didn’t expect you to leave with me. I only hoped you would wait for me.” He crumpled the papers in his hands. “Here.” He shoved them at her, and she gripped them tightly, afraid they would flutter to the ground before she could grasp them fully.
“What are…” Her voice trailed off, reading the flowing script. Her name was at the top of each page. She glanced at him, then back to the papers. The earliest date was from that long-ago summer, the latest date just this night.
“I wanted to send them, but you asked me to move on.” Nathaniel raked a hand through his hair. “I thought if I wrote you a time or two, I would be able to do just that.”
“You wrote me?” Her voice squeaked out. She read the first one, a heartfelt confession which caused her vision to swim with unshed tears. Too bad all that changed when she struck the blow that killed his father, and labeled him a traitor.
Nathaniel curled his hands over hers. “Nothing has changed.”
“What of Delilah?? How would she feel? What of Fergus?” She shook her head. What of my parents? she thought.
“Delilah married for love, despite what our family expected. She’s happier than I’ve ever seen her.”
“I’m glad she hasn’t suffered. But, it isn’t that easy. Fergus lost his parents, his wife… his son.
“If you’d write your brother, maybe you would learn he holds no grudge against me?”
Elissa let out a dark chuckle. “You’ve written to my brother?”
“Aye, something you should do more often.” Nathaniel cupped her cheek, brushed his thumb along her cheekbone, and wiped the tear away. "You don't hate me for what my father has done, do you?" His tone was a mix of hopeful surprise.
Words failed her. How could she explain? She didn't blame him, but what would her parents say? She had vowed to seek vengeance, and had done it. She struck the final blow herself. Were the spirits of Bryce and Eleanor appeased by Rendon's death? Or did they require the blood of his children? His grandchildren? She shook the thought away. No, her parents were kinder than that, firm but just. She clutched at the amulet she wore, the strange token from the Gauntlet she liked to think came from her father. It comforted her to believe his spirit had traveled through the Fade to reach her. His words hadn't been about vengeance then.
She blinked away the tears, and Nathaniel’s face came into focus. His tender expression, his gentle half-smile, made her heart skip a beat. She took a deep breath; fragrant blossoms and clean-smelling soap filled her senses.
"You don't hate me?" she asked, her voice barely a whisper. "I forced you to become a Warden out of spite. Doomed you to live the same life your father forced on me."
"I was angry before, but what else could I do? The Howe name is a brand that screams traitor. My father was wrong. It's fitting that I became a Warden to atone for his misdeeds. I could spend a lifetime apologizing and never make up for what he's taken from you and your brother."
She shook her head. "It's not your fault. Your life with him was little better. I'm glad you were able to get away."
Nathaniel snorted. "Sent away, you mean. Father was quite angry when I told him of my proposal.” He placed his hand on the wall beside her head. "After everything, I was certain you would send me away. Why didn't you?"
"I was angry, I thought I wanted revenge, but -- when you held the chalice in your hand. I was afraid...." Her cheeks burned, her confession dying on her tongue. She couldn't admit how often he crossed her mind since he left eight years ago, nor how often he invaded her dreams since his return.
Nathaniel let out a breath and smiled at her, caressed her cheek with his thumb. She closed her eyes and leaned into his touch, just as she had so many years ago. Her heart thrummed in her chest, the steady rhythm increased in anticipation.
"I thought maybe we'd been given a second chance. If you don't..."
She interrupted his words in the sweetest way possible, tilting her face up and brushing her lips over his. His eyes widened a moment before his arms slipped around her and pulled her close. Elissa sighed at the warmth enveloping her, allowed herself to drown in the sensations his lips against hers created. For weeks she thought of his kiss, wondered if the one shared in the past was something she recalled correctly, or if she had embellished it in her mind. No other kiss had ever affected her as much - until this one.
His lips were soft at first, then grew more determined, more possessive, more passionate. His hands skimmed along the edge of her tunic. She whimpered in agreement and pressed herself tighter against him. Her fingers twisted in his hair. The longer locks looked good on him, and felt as soft as silk in her hands. The heat of banked desire flared hot in her veins. The troubles at the Keep and the world melted away; the only thing that mattered was his lips on hers, his hands firm and warm on her skin.
Nathaniel broke their kiss and took a deep breath against her cheek. "You've no idea how long I've wished you'd do just that."
Elissa's face grew warm. She'd forgotten herself and kissed him without thinking. What now? she wondered. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth.
Nathaniel brushed his thumb over her swollen lip, pulling it gently from her teeth. His smile was tender, but his eyes blazed with desire. She looked up at him, hiding her eyes beneath thick lashes. Nathaniel groaned, pulled her closer, and claimed her lips once more. His hands caressed over her back. One finding its way into the tight knot of hair at the base of her skull. Skilled fingers loosened the pins holding her hair in the severe bun.
She hummed at the feel of his fingertips massaging through her hair, sighed when it fell free and the weight of the knot no longer pressed against her head. Her own hands clung to him, pulling him closer, frantic to feel more of his heat mix with her own.
"Lissa, love, wait." His whispered plea cooled some of her passion. She loosened her grip with a whimper. She didn't want him to stop, but he shook his head. "I'll not take you in the garden, where anyone might find us." Nathaniel took a deep breath, and tried to steady himself. His hands pressed against the wall behind her. She felt his body tremble when she squirmed against his thigh.
"I don't care who knows." She was still high on the desire he brought forth. That long forgotten flame between them, banked and all but smothered, flared far stronger than she anticipated. No longer unaware of how things were between lovers, she was eager to please him, and seek her own pleasure.
"I'll gladly shout from the rooftops that you are mine, but what I plan for us is not something I want shared with the other Wardens." There was a hard glint in his eye.
"I'm not a pampered noble any longer. The garden is just as private as a tent in camp." She didn't want to wait until they reached his room or hers. "I know how to be quiet."
"Then you've not been doing it right. I'll not have the Keep thinking we're under attack."
Elissa snorted. "I doubt a few loud moans would draw much attention."
Nathaniel chuckled and slid a hand under her tunic. She sucked a hiss through her teeth at the heat of his hand on her breast. She bit her lip to stop herself from crying out when he rolled the taunt peek between his thumb and finger and tugged gently. A jolt of need coursed through her veins, and the ache of need increased between her thighs.
Nathaniel leaned in and nipped her earlobe before his tongue traced the swirling folds. She shivered at the warm breath chilling on her damp skin. "I intend to lick every inch of you, and then start over until you beg me to stop. I don't plan for either of us to sleep before the sun rises."
Her eyes flew wide at his seductive whisper, and promise of untold pleasure. Sex with Alistair had been pleasurable, though rushed and often clumsy in the cramped tent. Would things be so different in a bed? Before she could respond to his words, however, another voice cut through the darkness.
"I'm sure I saw her enter the gardens," she heard Anders say.
"Maker's balls," Elissa cursed. There was nowhere to go except the way she came.
“I know a secret passage.” Nathaniel chuckled, and added, "Unless you wish to shock the mage?"
Elissa tossed him a mischievous smile. "Maybe another night; tonight you have to live up to your promise."
He pressed a stone beneath the vines, and a door rolled back silently.
"Convenient." She stifled a giggle as his shush.
Hand in hand, they stepped into the concealed doorway and followed the tunnel beyond. Nathaniel stopped at a T-shaped intersection. “To the left is the main hall and an exit beyond the walls, to the right the rooms.”
“I wondered how you were in the garden. You left for your room over an hour ago.”
“I’d all but forgotten it was here. It’s been years since I’ve used the tunnel.”
“Why use it tonight?”
“I was tired of a certain lady spurning my attempts at conversation.”
“I’m glad you did.” Elissa’s cheeks filled with warmth. A pleasant flush of excitement coursed through her.
“My room or yours?” he asked.
“Mine, I always have a tray sent around midnight after I finish with reports. If I’m not there to receive it, it could rouse suspicion.”
“I thought you cared not if anyone knew?”
“I don’t... but I also don’t want to be interrupted. The Senechal might wake the Keep in search of me.”